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Is Android a victim of its own success?

The proliferation of different devices running different versions of Google's OS could lead to very different user experiences, app selections, performance standards and malware risks in different global markets.

india Updated: Mar 09, 2013 17:39 IST

The proliferation of different devices running different versions of Google's OS could lead to very different user experiences, app selections, performance standards and malware risks in different global markets.

Every month, Google publishes the latest Android distribution statistics, which detail the percentage share that each version of the operating system has on active smartphones and tablets around the world. Every month, the news is the same -- the figures show the same thing -- that the newer, safer versions of Android account for a much smaller percentage of devices than older, no longer supported versions of the operating system.

This month's data shows that version 2.3 (Gingerbread) -- launched in 2010 -- still accounts for 44.2% of all Android devices and that only 16.5% of handsets and tablets are powered by the latest JellyBean version (4.1 or 4.2) of the OS. This means that fewer than one in five devices globally is up to date in terms of virus and malware detection. Adding to this problem is the apparent lack of protection installed within the Google Play app store to ensure that apps on offer are not carrying malicious code or are designed to steal a user's data.

As well as usage figures, Android malware has been grabbing headlines this week. Research published by computer security company F-Secure on Thursday, based on a three-year study, shows that the malware threat on smartphones is growing and that it is growing faster on Android than on any other smartphone operating system. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of malware threat families targeting the system jumped from 80 to over 300. As a result, F-Secure claims that Android accounted for 79% of all malware in 2012, up from 66.7% in 2011 and just 11.25% in 2010. On the other side of the spectrum, Apple's iOS, the world's second-most popular platform for smartphones in terms of new purchases, remains one of the least compromised, with 0.7% of malware on its platform.

The results of the survey motivated Apple's Senior Vice President of Marketing, Phil Schillar, to make his first appearance on Twitter this year, in order to link to the survey and tweet "Be safe out there."

Fragmentation 'plagues' Android ecosystem

Just like a Windows PC, Android is more vulnerable to attacks simply because of its popularity -- an Android attack will potentially snare the most users -- but because of this fragmentation in terms of operating systems, Android is also much easier to attack. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that older versions of the OS don't get the same security updates and that until this year, Google had very little in the form of malware detection built into its Google Play app store in order to identify suspicious apps.

Then there's the issue of how many different companies, network operators and devices make up the Android ecosystem. As Former Nomura analyst Richard Windsor explains in his blog, "The fragmentation of Android is an issue that has plagued the ecosystem since the day that it launched. It suffers from both horizontal fragmentation where handset makers make alterations for their own purposes and vertical fragmentation where there are lots of different revisions of the code in live devices."

This results in very different user experiences and access to features across not only devices but network carriers too. It's also why, when asked to compare Windows Phone 8 with Android, Microsoft's Corporate VP of Windows Phone, Terry Myerson, told Mobile World Live: "Android is pretty much a confusing mess."

This "confusing mess" is also a problem for developers who want to build apps and services for the platform. In a post to the official blog of mobile-app analytics firm Flurry this week, Dr. Mary Ellen Gordon, PhD, used the company's stats to show that the fragmentation in the Android ecosystem means that as well as operating system variations, the devices themselves are an issue. In order to reach 80% of devices with an app, a developer must make sure that it is compatible with 156 different device models -- each of which has a different processor, amount of RAM and custom features and code lines installed by manufacturers or network operators. Compare that with Apple. There are only six versions of the iPhone in existence, 80% of them run the same version of the iOS operating system, and Apple polices its App Store like a hawk.

Cost remains a driving force

But Android's problems won't improve as newer handsets come onto the market and users upgrade their existing phones, because manufacturers are still actively using older versions of the OS in their devices as a way of keeping costs down and creating "affordable" smartphones.

"This is because this segment is basically about getting a smartphone with the largest screen possible into the hands of the user at the lowest possible price," explains Windsor. He believes that all of the investment in these devices is in the display size and the result is "hardware barely able to run Android. Hence, these manufacturers tend to use Gingerbread, as the minimal hardware won't support version 4."

And therein lies the biggest problem. The largest growth in the global smartphone market this year will be in the sub-$100 category as users in emerging economies embrace the mobile web, and this new demand will drive manufacturers to throw out a good operating system with tighter security controls in order to make a quick sale. Meanwhile, consumers in mature markets will continue to upgrade their handsets on a yearly basis and, in doing so, move on to better versions of the OS, creating a two-tier Android market with no continuity of performance, service, user experience or quality.

First Published: Mar 09, 2013 17:36 IST